Volume 28, Number 1

The Importance of Immigration to All Americans

Fred Schepartz

I am a Jew.

I am a second-generation American.

The ability to immigrate to this country has been very important to my family.

My father’s parents were both immigrants.

My mother’s parents were both immigrants.

My father’s parents arrived in this country when they were very young. One came from Lithuania. The other came from Russia, somewhere near Odessa.

My mother’s parents came here as young adults. Their stories are a bit more colorful than the stories of my father’s parents’ immigration.

They were born and raised in a village somewhere between Odessa and Kiev. My grandfather deserted from the Czar’s army. He had been stationed in a town that he liked. He asked permission to stay there permanently, but was told no. Because he was a Jew. Also, he saw the handwriting on the wall, that World War I was inevitable.

So, he deserted, found his way to the United States and sent for my grandmother.

Fast-forward 60 years. My parents get a call out of the blue that a cousin had arrived in the United States. He was from a branch of my maternal grandmother’s family that we had largely lost track of. And suddenly, there he was, all the way from Odessa.

Eventually, he became an American citizen and managed to pull whatever strings and pay whatever bribes to bring his parents over as well.

And then in the early 1980s, some other cousins made it over here from Odessa.

All of this effort was to find a better life in the United States. Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union were two entirely different countries, but had one thing very much in common: life for Jews was difficult, if not dangerous. And both nations had another thing in common: neither liked having Jews around, but neither made it particularly easy for Jews to leave.

Like most immigrants, my cousin worked hard to build a good life for himself here. Like many immigrants, he was an entrepreneur. At least for a little while, he had an egg and dairy business before going into more conventional employment.

One cannot overstate the economic importance of immigration. Just today, I read about a study released by the Partnership for a New American Economy that found more than 13,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Wisconsin.

This is a major economic engine for a state that has struggled economically for nearly a decade and has suffered under a governor who cares far more about union busting and pleasing billionaire backers than economic development.

Also, it should be noted that entrepreneurship allows immigrants to work and pay taxes regardless of immigration status. Thus, immigrants who cannot legally be employed can be productive and serve a positive economic purpose in our society.

More importantly, as was the case with my grandparents and my cousins, immigration provides safe harbor for people fleeing hazardous situations and circumstances.

This is also the case for refugees. In fact, for refugees, this is the crux of the matter.

It is disturbing to see the hostility toward refugees, the overwhelming majority of which are people seeking asylum from life-threatening circumstances.

Consider the Syrian Civil War. It is described as the deadliest conflict of the twenty-first century. The civilian death toll is close to a half million. That’s not just civilians caught in the crossfire. For instance, Democracy Now! recently aired an Amnesty International report about a Syrian government military prison where 13,000 civilians were hanged.

It is the entire world’s responsibility to step up in the face of a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. It is the responsibility of every country to take in their share of refugees. In the face of such a crisis, no one can turn their back and say it is up to someone else to address the problem.

And yet, we treat refugees with scorn. For instance, a social media meme I’ve seen recently concerns homeless veterans, that we should not take in a single refugee as long as there is one homeless veteran.

These are two separate issues that really do not have any relationship with each other. A homeless veteran is not homeless because a refugee is occupying the room the vet would otherwise be able to call home.

More importantly, this sentiment represents a jingoistic demonization of the other. The homeless veteran is us. The refugee is not us. Why are we helping the refugee and not the homeless veteran?

Aside from being misguided, this mindset is dangerous. We are all people. We are all citizens of the world. The homeless veteran, yes, is us. The refugee is also us.

But that is what scapegoating is all about.

Our lives are not what we want them to be. People in power don’t act in our interest. They don’t listen to us.

We want to blame someone for our misfortune.

We blame the other.

We blame the other because we have learned to objectify and dehumanize them, which then makes it easier to blame them.

We blame refugees. We blame immigrants. We blame Muslims. We blame Jews. We blame everyone except for those who are really to blame because they are the ones who inflame our hatred and trick us into looking in the wrong places.

I recently saw Cabaret on TCM. Given current events, I found it just that much more disturbing.

Can it happen here?

Sad to say, yes, it can happen here.

My mom tells stories about how her parents had a small store in Philadelphia. They sold ice cream, candy, magazines and comic books. Local members of the American Bund would paint swastikas on the windows. Sometimes, they’d march into the store and flash Hitler salutes.

Seventy years later, swastikas are still being painted in various places where Jews can see them. Jewish Community Centers across the country have had to be evacuated because of bomb threats, including a JCC in Milwaukee. More than 100 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery outside St. Louis were vandalized.

Over the last few months, we have seen a rise in these types of hate crimes as certain people feel emboldened to attack people for being not white, not Christian, for being the other.

As I’ve stated many times in this space, I’m not a rah, rah, flag-waving kind of guy. I’ve had some disagreements with my mother about this. I do admit that it is easy for me to be hostile to this country because I have not known the hardship of living under oppression in another place, as was the case of my grandparents.

My mother often says that her mother kissed the ground when she arrived here. Perhaps that is a bit of puffery. Perhaps not.

I like to believe in the better angels of our nature. And that is the vision I would like to have for this country.

I would like to see this country as a place that truly welcomes immigrants and refugees. I would like to see this country be a place where all of us see ourselves not just as citizens of this nation but as citizens of the world.

I would like to see this country as a place where all of us see everyone in the world as one people, where there is no “other.”